Going Beneath The Surface

More Conversations With My Father

I won’t talk about the trip down to North Carolina after Christmas. That was a literal shit show – four adults, three dogs and luggage crammed into a Subaru Forester on a ten-hour car ride. You can only imagine. We’ll save that for another time. Instead, I’d like to talk about my talks and walks with my Dad during the few days I was down in North Carolina.

Dad has a little business; a dog walking business, to be precise. This requires him to spend his mornings and sometimes his afternoons being of service to our four-legged friends. Plenty of chances to delve below the surface of a man who doesn’t reveal much to begin with.

Dad has a tendency of over the past year or so to repeat himself. Telling the same stories or replaying of events as if he is telling it to me for the first time. Lately I’m noticing that he is mixing up his stories – weaving past events into current events. I say this partly to acknowledge to myself he is getting older and that opportunities to have these conversations will be fewer and fewer. Despite his physical health being good, he is showing signs of slipping. I think he realizes it too. He complains that he can’t remember where he put things, he can’t remember people’s names. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for him to not be as sharp as he used to be. Yet, despite these realizations that things are not as they used to be, there are many moments of clarity that allow us to get a little closer; opportunities to share in times when the future looked bright for him.

One morning we talked about his days in Army. I don’t know how we arrived at that topic but I went with it. I’ll attempt to paraphrase and summarize our conversation.

Why did you enlist in the Army?”

“I enlisted because then I’d have some control over my future. If I let them draft me they could send me anywhere. I had a friend of mine who waited to be drafted; he wound up being stationed in Germany. Not a good situation at that time.”

Why? Weren’t you worried about Vietnam?”

“No. Vietnam wasn’t on the radar then. Back then the concern was Berlin and the Communists/Cold War. That was a real worry. Tensions were very high then. I didn’t want to put myself in a position of being sent to the front lines during the Cold War.”

What were you assigned to do during your stint?”

“After basic training in Fort Dix I was shipped out to Oklahoma for training with artillery. I got pretty good at it; so good in fact that I was able to get my unit to zero in on the target within four shots and within a few minutes. I had other duties too. I remember being on guard duty one night and I had one guy in my unit who wasn’t too swift. He had the watch before me; I told him to find me when his watch was almost over so I could take over for him. I was going to get some shut-eye. Next thing I know, I wake to revelry playing. ‘Oh shit!’ I quickly got dressed and ran to find the guy who was supposed to wake me. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ ‘All the barracks look alike and I gave up trying to find you.’ Needless to say we got ripped a new one but it was worse for the other guys than it was for me.”

Why?”

“The other guys would tear up the town whenever they got a weekend pass. Sometimes they’d get drunk or thrown in the brig for disorderly conduct. Not me though. I would stay on base and play cards with the officers. Occasionally I’d get a care package from my mother, good Italian food from the neighborhood, and I’d share it with my superiors. They appreciated that. So, when it came to getting the assignments from the NCOs, they’d give the crappy ones to the others and give me the plum jobs. [smiles and chuckles]. There was a method to my madness.

Before long my time was up and I was given a choice – re-enlist in the National Guard/Reserves for one more year or walk away and take my chances on getting drafted. I re-upped in the National Guard/Reserves and managed to avoid Berlin and Vietnam. In a year my discharge papers arrived and I was done!”

The last day of our visit arrived. The car is packed. The dogs are in the back of the car. As the others say they’re good byes they make their way toward the car. I hang back for a bit. Dad approaches me with his arms outstretched. I think to myself, “Is he getting choked up? Yes, he is! He’s choking back some tears.” We hug for a few seconds but it seems longer, a lot longer. Lumps grow in each of our throats. “I’m glad you came down to visit. It means a lot to me that you could spend some time with me.”

Me too, Dad.

Me too.

100°

 

Summertime.

 

 

North Carolina.

 

 

Heat … oppressive heat.

 

 

I am spending a long weekend at Dad’s here in sweltering North Carolina. It is so smothering it always makes me wonder why on God’s earth would anyone settle in these parts before there was air conditioning?

 

 

I came down to lend a hand with some projects around the house that Dad can’t do anymore at his age. Now, if these projects were indoors I doubt that Dad would really need my help. After all, he does have central air conditioning!

 

 

No, these projects would require a lot of time outdoors … in the heat … in the humidity. There was a storm a little while back and there was a lot of fallen tree limbs and debris in the back yard; the back yard is quite large and runs about 50 yards from the house to the river bank. The debris was close to the river and had to be cut up, gathered and hauled to the front of the house and piled near the street. Back breaking, sweaty work with many long trips back and forth.

 

 

Given the heat advisory of over 100° (yes, I picked the hottest weekend of the year to visit), it was essential to life and limb that I start out in the cool of the morning. So, I began. The back yard was sheltered from the sun on account of the tall pine and ash trees. I was thankful for the shade for it provided at least a 10° temperature relief for some of the work but the shade was little consolation for the misery that the humidity brought.

 

 

Although the back yard was shady I was not so fortunate for half of my journey dragging limbs and brush to the street. The front of the house provided nowhere to hide from the already blitering heat. So with each trip the shirt and shorts become more drenched in sweat. With each trip the sun beat down with increasing intensity as the morning wore on. By Noon, the job was done and I was spent.

 

IMG_20160723_111753384_HDR

 

 

I cooled off down by the river with a cold drink in the hopes it would revive me. By the river there was not only shade but also a cool breeze blowing in off the water. I felt myself returning to life but that was not to last as I still had to walk back to the house. Walking back to the house, the refreshment was short-lived and was replaced by the oppressive oven of heat a mere 10 yards from the river. The only air moving at this point was the incessant vibration in the air caused by the cicadas singing their summer song and the buzz of the countless dragon flies. It felt like someone had thrown a hot, wet, wool blanket over me.

 

 

I never really understood why people in the South moved so slow; I understand that I’m from New York and everything we do – talk, eat, move, think – is fast but Southern life always seemed to move in slow motion to me. I didn’t get it … until today. During the summertime in the South there isn’t much activity in the heat of the day. Even with air conditioning things slow down, way down, in the sweltering heat and humidity. I didn’t really understand why until I had to work in that heat today. It wasn’t until today that I understood the method to their madness. The slow-down was a matter of survival in the steamy heat of the Southern summertime. If you’re foolish enough to be working in that heat you won’t last for very long in this world.  I mean, there’s a very good reason the song “Summertime” is sung at such a slow pace!

 

 

So I got to thinking; if I could learn a little something about someone else’s culture and customs and get some insight into their way of life perhaps I could understand them a little better. I don’t think it’s enough to be tolerant of others (although that’s a start). Maybe we have to better understand where each other is coming from, walk in their shoes, to understand them a little deeper; understand the environment, understand the customs, understand the beliefs and behaviors.

 

 

Taking the time and making the effort to understand someone just might make us more human, make us act better toward each other and maybe, just maybe, allow us to see just how similar we are to one another. Instead of out-shouting each other we could learn to respect each other because we’d be able to recognize that there is no “other” there’s only “us”.

 

 

I think we could use that around here.

 

Talking

Nine years ago I avoided his phone calls like the plague. For almost a whole year he wouldn’t take my phone calls. Growing up he was a tough guy to get close to. Over the past seven years we’ve grown closer. Nine years ago he couldn’t rely on me at all. Today he trusts me. Things change. Sometimes good things can come from terrible ordeals. Today, we went out to dinner. Nothing special … just an ordinary meal. We talked … about Facebook (“What is it?” he asked. “Should I do this Facebook thing?” “Can’t people just send me pictures by e-mail?”) … about how he met my late step-mom (“I was meeting with a lawyer on an estate matter.  She was the lawyer’s secretary.  I had to meet the lawyer many times and things just progressed.  She told me she thought I looked sad and needed cheering up.”) … about baseball; yes … baseball. Cliche, perhaps, but that’s what this father and his son did … talked baseball.52025301_c773f451f7_m He talked about the glory days of the Yankees. He reveled in comparing Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle.  He told me about Sal “The Barber” Maglie and Ryne Duren ( a relief pitcher for the Yanks with a blazing fastball and lousy eyesight!).  “The best hitter I ever saw play was Ted Williams. He never struck out swinging.  DiMaggio was a better all around player but Williams was the best hitter … ever.  You know it’s saying something when a devoted Yankee fan says this about a Red Sox player!” “When I was a kid, I’d get a $1 allowance for doing my chores.  I’d walk all the way to Yankee Stadium – about 50 blocks. I’d get a bleacher seat – $0.60, a scorecard was $0.25 and that left me $0.15 for a soda and a hot dog.  I used to watch DiMaggio in center field.  He could see the signs the catcher was giving so he knew what pitch was coming. At the crack of the bat, he was racing off.  He made it look so easy.” “Today’s baseball just isn’t the same.” No, it isn’t but neither are these conversations. Thank goodness for change!

A Letter to My Daughters

March 8, 2015

Dearest Daniela and Nelya,

I love you both with all of my heart.

I begin this letter by telling you something I’ve told each of you many times before – I LOVE YOU. I have never tired of saying it and I will forever tell you how much I love you – until the end of time.

I think that you both realize that while I am not your biological father I consider you my daughters and, I hope, you look to me as a Dad in your life. I have been blessed to have each of you in my life through a hosting program. That would make you “sisters” and even though you each live a great distance from each other (one in Latvia and the other in Ukraine) my hope is that you would have the good fortune to meet each other someday. I am confident that you would become friends very quickly as you are very much alike.

You are both strong and lovely young women who’s lives are about to enter adulthood. In many ways life and adulthood has already met you face to face. In so many respects you have dealt with more challenges than most people twice your age. Through your courage and tenacity you have endured so much and I admire you for that. Many people could not have accomplished what you have done and you are my heroes.

While it may seem that you’ve dealt with so much already in life there is still so much more life yet to come for you. There will be many good times and events in your future but there will also be some tough times. There are exciting and adventurous times for each of you and I am excited for each of you as you experience life in all it’s glory. I am very blessed to not only be a witness to your journey in life but also to be a part of your lives in the future.

So, why am I writing to you now? Simply because the speed of life is about to get much faster for you and it will also become a lot louder! There will be many ideas, fads, things and people that will be clamoring for your mind, imagination, heart and attention. There will be many sparkly objects to tempt you along the way but not all of them will lead you to good places. So I thought that this would be a good time to tell you a few things while the opportunity presented itself. I hope that you don’t mind me passing along some information about life.

I will not pretend that I have unlocked the great mysteries of life or have any special insight into how to find the meaning of life. Nor am I so naive to think that you will actually heed all I have to say but perhaps you will; after all, when I was your age (and yes, I was once your age) I did not think my parents had anything to offer me in the way of advice. As I got older I realized my parents had a lot of wisdom. All that I can offer you is the benefit of my experiences and observations during my short time on this planet. You may feel it necessary to put my words to the test and that is certainly okay; I understand that. So here it goes …

● Life is not always easy and you will not be happy all the time; to think otherwise is unrealistic. There will be tough times and there will be times of sorrow; there will be times where your heart will feel like it is breaking and will never mend. However, those dark times will be outweighed, far outweighed, by times of wonder, times of sheer joy, times of laughter and times of love. The experiences of joy and love will, at times, make you feel like you cannot contain it inside your body and you will feel like you are going to burst! There will be times when you will feel connected with everyone and everything around you on a level that you will find difficult to put into words. Cherish those moments of pure love and joy for even in the darkest, ugliest of moments you must find the spark of beauty hidden in those moments and cling to those sparks! They will carry you through the dark moments.

● Speaking of love, when it comes to your boyfriends and husband, do not settle for a mouse or a pig … ever! Do not think so little of yourself that you feel you must accept less because somehow you believe you are not worthy of the best. I will say this very clearly – you are worthy of nothing less than the very best! Never accept someone who treats you like garbage or disrespects you as a woman or treats you as someone who is inferior; you are second-best to no person and you are glorious in your own right! Any man who is unwilling to support your dreams or defend you and your honor is not unworthy to have you. It is better to be alone than to be treated like a second-class person. So be patient and the right match for you will come along. I promise he will appear.

● Do not go chasing after love. Love begins with loving and accepting yourself as God meant you to be, including all your talents and your faults. Take the time to discover who you are, what you like and what your talents are; take the time to explore your dreams. If you are true to yourself and are patient in finding your partner in life, your mate will find you when you are ready for him. Let love find you.

● Experience what life has to offer you. The world is a small place and full of a variety of people, music, foods, art, culture and traditions. All of those things, and so much more, are within reach for you. Try new things and keep an open mind. Be open to learning new ideas and discovering how similar you are to people from different cultures, religions,and regions. We are all part of the same family – the human family. With that said, be adventurous but not reckless. If something doesn’t feel right for you avoid it.

● Listen to that inner voice. You know the one I am talking about, don’t you? It’s the one in your “gut” that warns you that what you are contemplating doing isn’t a good idea. It’s also the same voice that encourages you to spread your wings and soar. Pay attention to it. I encourage you to spend some time (a minute or two will suffice) in quiet and stillness each day to stay in tune with that “Voice”. That is one way that God speaks to you.

● Take the time to appreciate and notice the beauty in the world around you. Make the time to let beauty and love into your life. Notice how blue the sky is, how the grass smells, how warm the sun is on your face, how delicious the cake tastes. These little wonders are around us all the time to remind us of how much of a miracle life is, how much we are loved to have these little wonders in our world and how much we are part of the miracle! These beauties are here to help us through the dark times, to remind us that the tough times will not last forever. Look for the beauty even in the ugliest of scenes – it is there.

● To the extent it depends on you, be kind to yourself and to others. Treat others as you would like other people to treat you. Be a positive force of change in the world by being that positive force for change in yourself. If you want the world to be more peaceful, be peaceful yourself; if you want to see more love, tolerance and humanity then be more loving, tolerant of people who are different from you and be more generous with your neighbors. No one ever became poor by giving of themselves.

One last thing before I end this letter. I want you to know that no matter what happens, no matter where life takes you, no matter how far away you are … you always, always, always have family who loves you to the moon and back. Never forget that … never.

I love you both with all my heart … forever.

Phil

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Tweaks and Updates

This won’t be such a big post in word count but it is big for me. It’s big because I’m gaining more confidence with each new tool I use or skill I learn.

The big work was done to my main web site – www.pgentile.com.  I added a a few new pages over there as well as a few widgets.  Just a little clean up to make it flow better.  I also tweaked the looks of this blog based on the prompts of Blogging 101.  I’m starting to get the hang of things here.  I hope you’ll check out the web site and let me know what you think.

News from the writing front: I continue to plow through research on one of my projects in preparation for an upcoming meeting with a client.  I’ve got the seeds for a post about my boy Peter.  Be on the look out for it by the weekend.

Finally, I’m preparing to visit my Dad down in North Carolina.  He needs some help going through some papers, trinkets, etc after my step-mom’s passing a few months ago.  It will be good to see him again.  More reports will come in from the Southern front over the weekend.

Dad and I

Vintage! Dad and I